What’s wrong with telling people you’re safe?

A front page from the Sunday Telegraph with the headline "Carnage across Londn as 'terrorists strike again'". There is a large picture of a policeman walking across London Bridge at night, with stationary vehicles in the background.Last Saturday night there was a terrorist attack in London, and as often happens in these situations, Facebook activated its “safety check” or “I’m safe” feature, by which people identified as living in London or who have recently checked in at locations in London are invited to mark themselves as safe so their friends know. I and several of my friends and relatives did so, even though some of us were nowhere near London Bridge or Borough Market at the time. I saw some people criticising the feature and the trend for people to do this, such as this article at the Independent, on the grounds that it “makes us feel like danger is our default setting when something like last night’s terror attack occurs nearby”:

From what I understood about last night’s event, my assumption was that my friends were probably OK. I hope that they would also assume that I was safe unless they heard otherwise. For events on the scale of last night, the Facebook Safety Check reverses this assumption. It creates an implicit supposition that we are not safe until we let people know that we are. It creates a culture of hyper-vigilance that undermines our capacity to feel relatively secure about our environment.

I did mark myself as safe. The reason is that I have friends in other countries who do not know the geography of London, who may have been concerned for my well-being and who don’t know that in fact the attack took place more than ten miles from where I was sitting. Some newspapers were exaggerating the scale of the attack, including the Sunday Telegraph whose headline was of “carnage across London”, when in fact the attack was limited to the area around one railway station (perhaps this headline was in reference to another incident in Vauxhall, a stabbing which was initially thought connected to the London Bridge attacks but turned out not to be). It only takes a second to click the “I’m safe” button.

Whenever something serious has happened in London, I get emails asking if I’m safe. I got them after the 2005 London bombings and when the tornado hit in December 2006, a friend in Canada emailed me to say that she’d heard on the news that a “severe tornado” had hit London. In fact, it was not severe; it was very localised and caused damage to some buildings in an area called Kensal Green and injured 12 people. I was in the general area and saw the dramatic skies that morning, but didn’t see the tornado. I wrote the lady back and said it wasn’t severe and that I hadn’t been affected. London does not get severe tornados like those seen in the American West; Britain as a whole gets a lot of very minor ones. Simiarly, when the 9/11 attacks happened, one of my first thoughts was for a relative who lived in Washington and had worked at the Pentagon (she was not there at the time). Facebook and Twitter at that time did not exist; blogs were in their infancy (they became popular in the wake of 9/11) and social media was limited to email lists and web forums and generally you didn’t use those to talk to family. You used the phone to check on relatives’ safety, and all the lines were busy that day. That was very common in 2001.

There is another button next to “I’m safe” marked “Doesn’t apply to me”. I didn’t click that as I wasn’t sure what, if anything, it would do. Perhaps the safety check feature should have another button marked “Not in area”; that way friends would know that not only am I safe, but that I was never in any danger from it. It relieves others’ concerns and saves me writing emails to needlessly concerned people abroad

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